Thursday, November 11, 2010

Flying Burrito Brothers -- "Christine's Tune" (1969)

Her number always turns up in your pocket
Whenever you are looking for a dime
It's all right to call her but I'll bet you
The moon is full and you're just wasting time
She's a devil in disguise
You can see it in her eyes
She's telling dirty lies
She's a devil in disguise -- in disguise

Gram Parsons lived like a rock star and died like a rock star. But perhaps the most amazing part of his story is what happened to him after he died.

"Christine's Tune" was the first track on the Flying Burrito Brothers' first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. It's one of my favorites, and I was reminded of it recently when I was writing about Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger," which also refers to a lover as "the devil in disguise."

The song was co-written by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, who had left the Byrds after recording Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the first major country-rock record.  Roger McGuinn had planned to make an album that incorporated examples of several different genres of American popular music, but Parsons, a very recent addition to the band who had grown up in a wealthy Florida family and attended Harvard College for a semester, had a different agenda.  He persuaded the other band members that the Byrds should go country, and so they did.

Parsons left the Byrds soon thereafter, and Hillman followed him a few weeks later.  They didn't waste time, forming a new band and recording and releasing Gilded Palace of Sin only six months after Sweetheart of the Rodeo's release.  Both albums were commercial flops, but were very influential on other musicians.

Parsons hung around for one more album with the Flying Burrito Brothers -- 1970's Burrito Deluxe -- and then left the band.  Burrito Deluxe included the Jagger-Richards song, "Wild Horses."  Parsons had become a close friend of Keith Richards, moving into the guitarist's home for a time.  The Rolling Stones recorded a number of country-ish songs about the same time -- "Dear Doctor," "Country Tonk," and "Dead Flowers" are examples.  

Here's Gram with Nudie Cohen of "Nudie's Rodeo Tailors," a Russian Jew who made rhinestone-encrusted suits for many famous country-westerns singers.  The Flying Burrito Brothers had really flamboyant outfits, thanks to Nudie.

His first solo album featured Emmylou Harris, whom he had discovered singing in an obscure club in Washington, DC.  The two were working on a second album in 1973, when Parsons died from  an overdose of drugs and alcohol.  That album -- titled Grievous Angel -- was released posthumously.   

Parsons was not quite 27 when he died.  It's an understatement to say that he lived an excessive lifestyle -- sex, drugs, and rock and roll (or country-rock and roll), with emphasis on the drugs.  Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Parsons:

Having gained thirty pounds since his Burrito days from Southern food and excessive alcohol consumption, it came as a surprise to many when Parsons was enthusiastically signed to Reprise Records . . . in mid-1972. . . . Parsons, by now featuring [Emmylou] Harris as his duet partner, played dates across the United States as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels.  
The touring party also included [Gram's wife,] Gretchen Parsons -- by this point extremely envious of Harris—and Harris's young daughter.  Coordinating the spectacle as road manager was Phil Kaufman, who had served time with Charles Manson on Terminal Island [which houses a federal prison] in the mid-sixties and first met Parsons while working for the Stones in 1968.  
Kaufman ensured that the performer stayed away from substance abuse, limiting his alcohol intake during shows and throwing out any drugs smuggled into hotel rooms.  At first, the band was under-rehearsed and played poorly, but improved markedly with steady gigging . . . . According to a number of sources, it was Emmylou who forced the band to practice and work up an actual set list.  
Harris and Parsons
Nevertheless, the tour did absolutely nothing for record sales.  While he had been in the vanguard with The Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, Parsons was now perceived as being too authentic and traditional in an era dominated by the stylings of the Eagles, whose sound Parsons disdained . . . .
   In the summer of 1973, Parsons' Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a stray cigarette. Nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and a prized Jaguar automobile. The fire proved to be the last straw in the relationship between [his wife Gretchen] and Parsons, who moved into a spare room in Kaufman's house. 
While not recording, he frequently hung out and jammed with members of New Jersey–based country rockers Quacky Duck and his Barnyard Friends . . . and the proto-punk Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, who were being managed by Kaufman. . . . According to the road manager of Quacky Duck, Parsons was, despite being frequently drunk, a kind soul who provided business and musical guidance to the younger band.

I'm reminded of what my mother used to say when playing with her infant grandsons: "Him a mess!"  (I'm not reminded of what my father used to say when my children were old enough to talk but not old enough to speak clearly:  "I believe you're a Dutchman."  That was an old-fashioned way of saying Deutschmann, or Deutsch mensch -- Americans considered German a very difficult language to comprehend.)

From "The Straight Dope":
Parsons wasn't a suicide, but he killed himself . . . . In September 1973 he finished recording an album and went with some friends to an inn at Joshua Tree National Monument, one of his favorite places. The group spent much of the day by the pool getting tanked. By evening Gram looked like hell and went to his room to sleep. Later, on their way out for some food, his friends were unable to rouse him, so they left, returning a little before midnight. By that time Parsons was pretty far gone. Taken to a hospital, he was pronounced dead shortly after midnight on September 19. A lab analysis found large amounts of alcohol and morphine in his system; apparently the combination killed him. News coverage of his demise was eclipsed by the death of Jim Croce around the same time. Parsons was 26 years old.
So far, your typical live-fast-die-young story. Then it gets strange. Before his death Parsons had said that he wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree and have his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. But after his death his stepfather arranged to have the body shipped home for a private funeral, to which none of his low-life music buddies were invited. Said buddies would have none of it. Fortified by beer and vodka, they decided to steal Parsons's body and conduct their own last rites.

Cap Rock
Having ferreted out the shipping arrangements, Phil Kaufman (Parsons's road manager) and another man drove out to the airport in a borrowed hearse, fed the poor schmuck in charge of the body a load of baloney about a last-minute change of plans, signed the release "Jeremy Nobody," and made off with Parsons's remains. They bought five gallons of gas, drove 150 miles to Joshua Tree, and by moonlight dragged the coffin as close to Cap Rock as they could. Kaufman pried open the lid to reveal Parsons's naked cadaver, poured in the gas, and tossed in a match. A massive fireball erupted. The authorities gave chase but, as one account puts it, "were encumbered by sobriety," and the desperadoes escaped.
The men were tracked down a few days later, but there was no law against stealing a body, so they were charged with stealing the coffin or, as one cop put it, "Gram Theft Parsons." (Cops are such a riot.) Convicted, they were ordered to pay $750, the cost of the coffin. What was left of Parsons was buried in New Orleans.

Gram Parsons' grave (Metairie, LA)
Here's are excerpts from an interview with Phil Kaufman that contains his account of what happened then: 

Do you remember where you were when you heard that Gram passed away?

"I was at home, and I got a call from the girls who were with him. They called from the hotel, and I jumped in my vehicle and went out there. And I went to the room, got all the drugs, threw them away, and spent the night there. The next day, we tried to get them home, and the police were looking for the girls. They called the hotel and I said, 'I'll bring them right over.' And I got the hell out of Riverside County and went back to LA, and we never heard from them again. Gram's father-in-law, Gretchen's father, was a newscaster in LA, and I don't know how he did it, but he got the death certificate to say that Gram died of a heart attack. Technically, everyone dies of a heart attack: if you get shot in the head, your heart stops."
What was your understanding of how he died?

"Well, there was no question. Drugs and alcohol. Which drugs? Cocaine, and some kind of downer. I threw it away: I didn't have it analysed."
When he passed away, did you have a sense that this was something that was probably always going to happen?

"Yeah. And I felt very bad that I wasn't there. I think if I was there, I could have stopped it. Even though the girls with him tried very hard."
Had you been there when he'd OD'd before?

"No, no no. He'd never OD'd. But I made the analogy that unfortunately, he thought he had Keith's metabolism. And he didn't. Keith [Richards] can eat nails and piss rust. And Gram tried and died."
The conversation that you and Gram had had at [Byrds' guitarist] Clarence White's funeral -- had that been a heavy, serious business?

"Yeah, with a couple of beers and some whiskey in it. It wasn't flippant. It was a real pact. I couldn't go even go in the church, I was so pissed [off]. We thought that if Clarence had had his choice of funeral, he wouldn't have chosen that one. Gram said, 'We have our choice, right now. And if anything happens to me, you're my road manager, and I want you to take me out to the desert, and burn me.' I said, 'Okay, ditto, buddy. You do the same for me.' He said, 'It's a deal.'"

Phil Kaufman, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris
So once you heard he'd died, did the plan start to take shape pretty quickly?

"No. It was a couple of days before it all sunk in. His stepfather was trying to get the body moved to New Orleans, trying to establish residency by death, and get hold of the Snively estate. 
[NOTE: Parsons' biological father, a World War II flying ace, had committed suicide when Gram was 12.  His mother -- daughter of Florida citrus fruit magnate John Snively -- then married Robert Parsons, and died of cirrhosis of the liver as a result of her heavy drinking when Gram was 18.]  When I decided to do it... I called the funeral parlour, and they said, 'The body's on its way to LA, to be transferred to New Orleans.' It was, 'Ding!' The dime dropped. I knew, right away, what was going on."
Had you ever met Bob Parsons?

"No, but I'd spoken to him more than I wanted to. He had Gram's sister Avis locked up. This family was a Tennessee Williams novel: his mother dies, and the stepfather tries to take over the family fortune, and he had the daughter locked up, and he had power of attorney. And she got away; she was hiding out. He called me, and he had the FBI call me, and the police call me. I really got in his face about giving my phone number to policemen. We had quite a few heated conversations. Gram referred to him as the Alligator Shoe Pinkie Ring Asshole."
So having realised what he was up to, how carefully did you work you plan out? It seems like the key factor was having the balls to do it.

"That was basically it. It wasn't something we could research, 'cos we had to do it now. When I found out that the body was being shipped to LAX, on Continental Airlines, it just so happened that a friend of mine - one of the girls who was up there with Gram - owned a Hearse. I called her and she said, 'I know what you want - you want my car.' I said, 'Yeah, and I want your boyfriend too.' That was Michael [Martin]. We just pulled up and told them that the family had changed their plans, and they wanted to fly the body out of a private airport. They went, 'Oh - okay.'"
What do you recall of the drive out to Joshua Tree?

"Well, we stopped along the way, and I called my girlfriend, and we did one of those old World War Two, BBC, fly behind enemy lines things: 'The icing is on the cake. The preacher is in the pulpit.' She was standing by with a lawyer and a bail bond man - not in case we got caught, but for when we got caught. But we made it out, stopped in a little town called Cabazon for a burger and a beer, and headed out to the desert."
Do you remember what clothes Gram had on, in the casket?

"Yeah. He had two pieces of surgical tape, where they'd taken his organs out for autopsy. He was naked."
You were stopped by the cops...

"That was when we left the hangar, at the airport. I even got the cop to help me load the body in the back of the Hearse. It came to the point where I figured bullshit was going to beat bullets. I said, 'Hey! Give me a hand here, will ya?' I had my Sin City jacket on, and he wanted to know why we were dressed like that. I said, 'Well, we're off duty, we got a couple of girls at home, we gotta get rid of this stiff.' He was like, 'Yeah, yeah. I understand.'"
Having got to Joshua Tree, you parked at Cap Rock.

"Yeah. The only significance of Cap Rock was that it was a place to turn around. We were too drunk to go any further. Cap Rock had no significance. The desert did."
Do you recall how long you hung around while the body was burning?

"Not too long, because we saw lights coming. I looked in the box, and he was bubbling when we left. When they got there, all they found was brass and bones."
Kaufman had cremated Parsons by pouring five gallons of gasoline into his coffin and dropping a lit match into it.  Police were summoned after a forest ranger saw the resulting fireball, but Kaufman and his girlfriend escaped.  (According to one account they "were unencumbered by sobriety," which apparently gave them an edge over the police who were pursuing them.  It's funny how that works.)  The two were eventually arrested and fined $750 for stealing the coffin.  They were not prosecuted for leaving 35 pounds of Gram Parsons cremains in the desert.

Kaufman's theft of Gram's body is the subject of a 2003 movie called Grand Theft Parsons, which stars Johnny Knoxville, best known as the co-creator and star of the Jackass TV show and films.  Here's the movie trailer:


The site of Parsons' cremation was marked by a small concrete slab, but the slab was later removed by the Park Service and relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn.  The cremation site is now marked by simple rock structures and writings on the rock which the park service sand blasts to remove from time to time.

Here's "Christine's Tune."  Everything about this song is good, but I have to mention the slide guitar work of "Sneaky Pete" Kleinow (who worked as a stop-motion animator for kids' TV shows like "Gumby" and "Davey and Goliath" before he became a musician), which is fabulous. 

Here's a link to use to buy the song from Amazon.

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